Why Pop Art Is Jewish
A Roy Lichtenstein show at the Art Institute of Chicago reveals the movement’s affront to WASPy decorum
Nothing, of course, could have been further from his intention; he wasn’t overtly political, he was an ironist. The passing years made this clear, and the Chicago show reifies this perspective. “It’s art about art about art,” Marc Sheps, the director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, commented when the mural there, a diptych on permanent display that is half abstract and half figurative, was unveiled. He was right, not only about the mural but all Lichtenstein’s work. Lichtenstein was interested in the way in which ways of seeing had been altered by what Barbara Rose, in the year before the Tate show, called “discredited mass culture sources … advertisements, billboards, comic books, movies and TV.” He was far less interested in his subject matter than his audience, had no message to get across except to reflect the industrialized, super-material aspect of American life, in which, through his acknowledged “vulgar” renderings of work by the great masters (he did to Picasso what Picasso had done to Velázquez) he also participated.
In all likelihood there has rarely been an artist for whom the discrepancy between his own concerns and those of his audience has been greater. Lichtenstein, who worked for many years as an abstractionist and continued to think of his subject matter as abstract even after he had turned to the comic strip for inspiration, became, despite himself, the poster boy for, well, posters. Warhol, that enigma wrapped inside a pastry, appeared to share the Pop Art joke with his audience: America was spiritually vacant and ludicrous, when he silk-screened 200 one-dollar bills we all got it. Five years ago that first 1962 silk-screen painting went for $43.8 million on the auction block at Sotheby’s, which is as the world turns. Warhol enacted his art, reproduced himself, and showed up everywhere. Reviewing Warhol’s diaries in the New York Times Book Review in June 1989, Martin Amis listed some representative events: “the opening of an escalator at Bergdorf Goodman … an ice cream-shop unveiling in Palm Beach, a Barbie Doll bash, someplace to judge a Madonna-lookalike playoff and someplace else to judge a naked-breast contest.” Amis adds, “It strains you to imagine the kind of invitation Andy might turn down. To the refurbishment of a fire exit at the Chase Manhattan Bank? To early heats of a wet-leotard competition in Long Island City?” By contrast, Lichtenstein was reclusive and rarely broke his inexorable work routine—in the studio at 10 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m., return to studio until 6. In a 1987 interview in the New York Times, when Deborah Solomon asked him what holidays he celebrated, he had a hard time coming up with an answer until he remembered he had been at a friend’s for Thanksgiving. No wonder he painted an anxious blonde with a white-gloved hand held to her cheek whose thought-bubble reads, “M-Maybe he became ill and couldn’t leave the studio!” You can see her in Chicago.
Norman Mailer once affirmed that his reading of the Talmud influenced everything he had written. You’d have to do some digging, of course, to see how. The chronology provided on the website of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation does not even bother to mention that Lichtenstein’s Brooklyn-born real-estate broker father Milton and his mother Beatrice, born in New Orleans, were both Jewish, although the catalog for the Chicago show does parse his German-Jewish ancestry. Lichtenstein visited Israel for the first time in 1987 when he was 64 and discussed the possibility of the large mural that presently graces the lobby of the Tel Aviv Museum. Lichtenstein’s gift—he said at the time that he “wanted to give something to Israel”—was not without controversy, some vocal groups felt the wall should have been made available to a local artist. Lichtenstein, who the previous year had signed a telegram urging the Israeli government to negotiate with the Palestinians, remained above the fray and took a different tack, observing that the mural was meant for “anyone in the area.”
In his extraordinary and brilliant meditation on Freud’s relationship to his own Jewishness in Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi speculates that Freud’s attachment to and knowledge of things Jewish was far deeper than the great man liked to let on. Yerushalmi offers two wonderfully dubious yet curiously persuasive arguments in support of his thesis: First, Freud had a dog named Jofi, which had to be a Germanization of Yoffi; and second, Freud’s father gave him a Bible with a lengthy Hebrew inscription, and who would do that if the recipient couldn’t understand the language? In Roy Lichtenstein in His Studio, a portfolio of photographs by Laurie Lambrecht of the artist at work, only one image appears twice. It shows Lichtenstein seated in a chair at work on a canvas. He looks quite at home in this particular spot. Above the canvas one can clearly see the bottom of a poster for one of his shows: The words “art of the sixties” appear in both Hebrew and English. Perhaps Pop Art is Jewish after all?
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After World War II, Polish peasants hunted for jewels and gold amid the human remains at former Nazi death camps